Monthly Archives: September 2019

Nea Kavala Camp: Hell in Northern Greece

Leaving Lesbos for Nea Kavala ” Sept 2nd 2019 Ekathimerini photo

I  cried when I heard that the Greek government said  that it is going to send 1000 refugees from Moiria camp on Lesbos to Nea Kavala on the mainland. They want to relieve the pressure on the camp with all its new arrivals. I heard that the refugees to be moved were all seen as ‘vulnerable’.

I want to shout out “Don’t Go”, “please don’t go”.

I was a ‘vulnerable’refugee on Samos and In March this year I was moved to the mainland with over 300 refugees from Samos. I was sent to the Nea Kavala Camp.  I lived there for 4 months.

It is HELL.

It is CRUEL

It is SHIT

If I had known what was waiting in this desolate camp in northern Greece I would not have moved. They would have had to carry me there by force. But I knew nothing of this camp. They told me nothing. They never asked me if I wanted to move.

When you are held on the islands like Samos you get the idea that the mainland is a better place to be. They say this a lot on Samos. The mainland has better resources and facilities than the island. This is what we hear.

As I quickly learned THIS IS NOT TRUE AT ALL. And yes, I want to shout this out. Please listen.

Nea Kavala Camp is one of hell’s chosen spots in Greece. And to think that this government sees it as a suitable place for vulnerable refugees shows to me how much it must hate us. Nobody should be expected to stay there.

Shock! All of us from Samos were shocked by what we found there. It was so unbelievable. In just a few days many I traveled with left the camp, disappearing in the night to try and find a better place to stay in Thessaloniki or Athens. They had nowhere to go to. Most had little money. But they wouldn’t stay.

An old photo but shows lack of shelter

First, Nea Kavala Camp is an old military airfield. It is in flat and boring countryside. There are no trees. It is isolated. It is at least a 20 minute walk to the nearest shop. The nearest village is a 40 minute walk . What you see are lines of tents and cabins with no shade and no protection.

I was in my own room in Samos town. I shared a bathroom and a kitchen. It had a washing machine. It had electricity. It had wi fi.

In Nea Kavala I was given a tent. On my own which was something ok. But no bed, no electricity, no reliable wi fi, no personal security ( my tent was robbed 4 times of food and clothes). Now I faced long queues for the toilet, for the shower and days waiting to wash my clothes. Because I was given the tent and food my monthly allowance was cut

my tent

from 150 to 90 euros. The food from the army was disgusting. I couldn’t eat it or face the queues and stress in getting the food so lived for most of the time on croissants, bananas and milk from the supermarket.

Of course I had to stop my Greek classes on Samos. But in Nea Kavala there was NOTHING like that. None of the people responsible for the camp stayed at Nea Kavala. Even the Camp Manager who I got to know only came for a few hours a day. She told me she was frightened by the place. The only people there all the time were some soldiers involved with the meals and some police. The police could not be bothered with  us. I reported my thefts each time to be told to go away. They were always rude and aggressive.

Nea Kavala is in the north of Greece near the border with Macedonia. It has long and cold winters. In the first few weeks it was  very cold at night and we had a lot of rain. On the second night an old woman in the next tent died and I am sure the cold finished her life. We had just one blanket each. Over Easter the sewage system broke and I found a river of sewage flowing past my tent. It took days to repair because of the holidays.

Then came the summer. We cooked in our tents. No shade. No where to get cool. Torture.

This is where they are sending over a thousand vulnerable refugees. There will be many children and older people. Their tents are waiting!

I am sure that there are other mainland camps just as bad. I just know Nea Kavala. It is not a place for human beings. The refugees being moved there must be told. The world must be told. When you now hear that refugees are being moved from the islands to the mainland don’t assume that they are going to a better place. Listen to us! Don’t stand by in silence. Please.

 

Abshir, (Somalian, 26 years old)

 

They have arrived now. See

Migrants deplore conditions in new Greek camp

(https://www.france24.com/en/20190904-migrants-deplore-conditions-in-new-greek-camp)

“We left Moria hoping for something better,” said Sazan, a 20-year-old Afghan, referring to the main camp on Lesbos.

“And in the end, it’s worse.”

 

 

 

 

 

Moving Stories

Abshir’s

Just over a week ago Abshir, from Somalia, was transferred from Samos to a mainland refugee camp at Nea Kavala in northern Greece. He was part of around 350 refugees taken that day from Samos as part of the Government’s attempt to ease pressure on the massively overcrowded camp in Vathi. All of them left on the ferry to Athens and in Abshir’s case with some others, he was bussed north. In all a journey of nearly 24 hours. No food or drink provided.

Abshir was very nervous about this move. He did not want to leave Samos. After 5 months this shy gay young man from Somalia was at last feeling more comfortable. UNHCR had recognised that it was not safe for Abshir, on account of his sexuality, to stay in the camp which led to the Greek NGO, Arsis, funded by the UNHCR, to provide him with a single room in a modern shared apartment. It was not five star but it was a million times better than the tent he had in the jungle around the camp. He had access to a shower, washing machine, kitchen, wi fi; he had his room and he was warm and dry. As he grew in confidence he made some close friends and started Greek language classes, again funded by UNHCR. He was also making plans to create a small business.

If Abshir refused to move he would lose his monthly UNCHR allowance and his accommodation. Without any family support or other sources of regular income he felt he had no choice. So his focus shifted to finding out what he could expect when he got to Nea Kavala and to ensure that his case papers were transferred. Basically he was told that he need have no worry and that he would continue to receive the appropriate care although he would be need to be patient as they had many people arriving in Nea Kavala, especially from the frontier islands of Kos, Lesvos and Samos.

Since arriving in Nea Kavala Abshir has been living in a tent. He has one blanket. Most nights he is cold. He sleeps on the floor. The tent sits on stones so the floor is uncomfortable. It has no electricity, no furniture, no wi fi access, no cooking facilities. The meals are basic and he can’t eat them as they give him a bad stomach pain. Hours are spent in lines – for food, for the showers, for the toilet. The water is heated by solar panels so in the early mornings the water is cold. This is when Abshir showers as there is no line. The laundry is overwhelmed and gives priority to established residents. He tells me that even if could find a way to wash his clothes he would have to sit and watch them. There is so much hardship in the camp that nothing is secure. Already he has had milk and bread and some money taken from his tent. Many people are very hungry he said. The only consolation is that he is alone in the tent, but he has been told that this could change at any time as new refugees arrive.

 

The camp which is home to over 700 refugees is isolated. The few facilities on offer are provided by a Danish NGO which is UNHCR funded. UNHCR and the Asylum Service have no permanent presence in the camp. Neither do any lawyers. So when they make their twice weekly visits they are overwhelmed. Absher has met with the lawyers who told him that he would have to wait. They did tell him however, that his papers had not yet arrived.

There is a supermarket around 20 minutes walk from the camp and the nearest town 45 minutes on foot.

Abshir is not alone in finding the camp a bad place to be. On April 10th an ayslum lawyer came to meet all those who were recently transferred with Abshir from Samos and to give them some sense of what they could expect with respect to the asylum process. They were told that they would need to be patient as their papers had not yet arrived from Samos. This came as no surprise to Abshir but what was more noticeable was that of the 350 who came together from Samos less than a 100 were at the meeting. According to Abshir, there was so much anger and disgust at the conditions in the camp – sleeping in tents, cold, terrible food, no electricity, its isolation and more – that those who could were leaving. Heading for the border, or to Athens, or to Thessalonika, leaving behind those such as families who could not move so easily. And this is what they told the asylum lawyer when he asked why there were so few of them at the meeting. There was much anger in particular over the cutting of their UNHCR allowances from 140 to 90 euros a month on account that they were now being fed in the camp and no longer were responsible for their own food. The lawyer’s response was that he had nothing to say about the conditions they were complaining of as he was only responsible for the asylum process. But he urged them to be patient and not to demonstrate because if they did the police would certainly come in and jail them.

One can only wonder how many of these 350 would have boarded the ferry in Vathi at the beginning of April if they knew what was waiting for them?

A little over a week ago Abshir had his own room in the town centre of Vathi……..

Saad’s

At the same time as Abshir was being moved from Samos, Saad was moved from his apartment in Athens. In both instances they were given no choice. In Saad’s case he was moved by Praksis, a Greek NGO funded by UNHCR to provide housing for vulnerable refugees.

Alongside Saad there were two other refugees each with their own room. Most importantly, the apartment had a decent sized sitting room where Saad’s friends would meet to talk, to smoke shisha and to pass the time. There was also a balcony and all the bedrooms were furnished with wardrobes and cupboards. And over 18 months they had made the place into a comfortable home adding rugs, chairs, couches (most of them from the street) and pictures and photos on the walls.

Now Saad and his co tenants are in an apartment with just 2 rooms, no sitting area, no balcony, and no furniture. One of them has created a tent in the lobby and now sleeps there so Saad has his own room. Currently he has a bed and 12 boxes and bags with his belongings. Nothing else. Praksis told him that they can give them nothing more and that they should be happy not to be living out on the streets.

Saad and his co-tenants are furious with Praksis both with respect to what they have done and how they have done it. They say they can do nothing but Saad refuses to accept this and plans to appeal directly to UNHCR. As he said, at the end of the day he may get nowhere but he is determined that they should at least realise what they have done is inhumane, cruel and unacceptable.

Saad has been with Praksis long enough to know how to contact them. This is not a common experience for refugees as most of the agencies involved in the lives of refugees have developed a range of practices and mechanisms which make direct contact with someone who might know something about your case almost impossible. This was why Abshir was so concerned to ensure that information about his case should be transferred to Nea Kavala as he knew that once away from Samos, all the contacts he had made there would no longer be available to him and he would have to start afresh in the new camp. He has no named contact person and there is no continuity in his case management. This is the most common experience for all the refugees here.

Neither Saad or Abshir were given any clear reason for why they had to move. Neither were asked about how they felt and above all no choice. In Saad’s case the Praksis workers knew that the 3 refugees hated what they were given and that all are very angry. But no alternative is offered nor is there any attempt to work together to find a better place. It’s Praksis or nothing. As it stands at the time of writing, Praksis has now agreed to look for a more suitable apartment for the three of them but none of them is expecting much.

Living Space and Survival

Many issues are highlighted in these two stories.

Firstly, the powerlessness of the refugees over where and how they live. Their needs and voices are simply ignored. Refugees are given little or no notice whether it is moving house or moving off an island. Abshir and Saad had 5 days notice. As I write, the minster for migration is on Samos for a few days and he has just announced that when he leaves at the end of the week he will be taking hundreds of refugees with him on a Greek navy boat. I wonder if the refugees affected have been told yet? The casual way in which the agencies act in moving refugees without any negotiation or discussion; a complete disregard of their needs and circumstances reveals (once more) the fundamental lack of solidarity and respect for refugees.

Secondly, there is no sign that the authorities grasp or understand the critical importance of place (home, locality,) for refugees as they wait for the asylum system to process their applications. In Saad’s case, he has been in Greece since October 2016 and in Athens for over 2 years waiting for his final interview in June this year. As with thousands of other refugees his ability to survive these months where his life is virtually stopped has been down to his friends. In Saad’s case his apartment became part of a network of places where friends could meet and in many cases find a bed in an emergency. His home has been crucial to his well-being. This has now been taken away from him.

Abshir has his asylum interview scheduled for January 2021. As far as he knows he could be in Nea Kavala camp for 2 years.

Thirdly, these stories challenge the widely held view that refugees are better off being moved to the mainland from the camps on the frontier islands. It would seem that many assume that the conditions there would [must] be better than Samos.

There are simply no reservations to the mantra of de-congest the frontier islands of refugees. It is a mantra shared across the political spectrum and voiced by virtually every refugee agency/NGO in Greece. Here on Samos no questions are asked about where and what happens to the refugees who are moved. Of course no one asks the refugees what they think.

But there is no innocence to de-congestion. The authorities and the NGOs know very well that what awaits many of the refugees on the mainland will mark no improvement in their lives and may very well be worse than what they have left behind on the islands. But they say nothing to those leaving and do what they can to stop people from refusing to leave.

There is also a madness to de-congestion. In the week Abshir left with 350 refugees for Athens – heralded on Samos for relieving the pressure on the camp – a similar number of new refugees arrived. It is like watching a child trying to empty a bath whilst the water continues to pour in.

The camp in Vathi is an outrage. No argument. But then you are drinking tea with a 34 year old refugee from Gaza who has beautifully painted and fitted out the recently opened Banana House, a new refugee space, in Vathi. In the process of drinking tea he shows the photos of his tent in the jungle around the camp. It is amazing. From the outside it looks as desperate as all the other tents and shelters clustered amongst the olive trees. But! Inside his home made cabin under the trees he has created a place of wonder and comfort. It has a floor, carpets, store cupboards on the wall, a fire place, and a small kitchen area. He lives there with his wife and daughter. The man is a genius. There are many others maybe not as talented but who have created some comfort in such extreme conditions. They and not the authorities have done this. It is theirs. For many, their resilience as refugees rests on these kinds of activities and the spaces they create for living, meeting and talking; passing time as best they can as they wait. All these factors make arbitrary removals highly disruptive and damaging.

Without doubt after being detained on Samos being moved to the mainland carries more than the scent of a new freedom. For some their detention on Samos has been for up to 2 years and all have been on Samos for months. So it is with some hope they leave the island for the mainland.

But the way in which these movements of refugees – big and small- are managed makes them problematic and flawed. When it suits, major NGOs amongst others will draw attention to the trauma of refugees and in particular the psychological damage to refugees from being corralled in disgusting camps as on Samos. But what of their compliance in the cruelties such as moving people from their homes without notice or discussion. Silence. Where in this one part of the refugee experience in Greece does one get a clear sense that refugees are human beings with all our individual and paradoxical dimensions? Nowhere. Watching the refugees who are being moved off on the ferries is like watching sheep being herded. It is dehumanising.

Sometimes small individual stories take us to much bigger issues and in so doing reveal much especially illustrating the impact of macro policy and ideology on lived daily experiences. Abshir and Saad’s stories are such examples. For as they share their experiences we see just how pernicious and damaging is the European insistence of placing deterrence at the very centre of its refugee practices at least with respect to the kinds of refugees that come to islands like Samos. (It does not apply to those with wealth and who are offered ‘golden’ visas and the like.) As we see every day on Samos, deterrence allows no space for humanity; for dignity and respect. Deterrence does not allow for compassion and care. It is the very opposite of solidarity. And for the refugees the consequences are lethal at worst and distress at best.

(With thanks to Abshir and Saad. Your photos are great too!)

For Whom Do You Fly ? Zeppelin over Samos

The Zeppelin was launched six weeks ago with much fanfare about protecting and hardening European borders. The Samos authorities were so proud to be the first EU country to deploy an airship for this purpose. BUT since taking to the skies on the end of its 1000 metre tether, the flow of refugees here has increased significantly! It is wonderful to see as their arrivals torpedoes the stupidity of deterrence. We were laughing with friends from Gaza and Syria who told us that they now think that the Zeppelin provides a great target for the refugee boats to aim for as they travel over the sea.

At least the tourists on some of the Samos beaches can now be reassured that they are being monitored and they can also share their holiday moments with Frontex and the European security apparatus. Maybe they even see this as millions well spent by Frontex given the benefits it brings to the war industries which build these things.

Given that it is useless there are some who believe that the Zeppelin is not so much as about ‘managing the flow of refugees to this small Greek island but is more about advertising to the world a new product. If that is the case then we would recommend that Frontex use the airship to provide contact information and a price.

 

Who would have thought an ‘unmanned’ airship would need so many people!

Refugee Lessons: Let us Free Like the Birds !

 

My life has been turned upside down amd inside out. My brain has never had to work so hard to make sense, to survive and to live. For some of my hardest years, the system saw me and treated me as illegal. That is a big experience. I learnt much. But above all I thought about being human and being free.

Syria


Now 24 years old I was born in Aleppo in northern Syria. As one of the oldest human cities in the world it is rich with history. But I didn’t think of the city as a unique place. I thought that our cultures were everywhere in the world. As a young Syrian I couldn’t leave the country for many reasons, including money and international laws, which did not allow me to roam freely across the earth. I had no direct knowledge of the world other than Syria.

After the winds of war tore up my country, I was forced to leave Syria without any options other than escaping into Turkey, illegally. For the first time in my life I came to understand the incredible importance that humans give to ‘papers’ – passports, ID, visas and so on. If I had been a bird in Aleppo I would have been free to go where I wished with no thought about papers or borders. For birds and all other living creatures on this earth borders have no meaning. But we seem to be alone amongst living things in restricting this universal right.

Turkey


When I arrived in Turkey I discovered that there are people who speak a strange language (my first feeling), which is Turkish and they do not know Arabic. I thought that I must learn their language so that I can communicate with them, but the Turkish language was not the only obstacle; the Turkish way of life I found hard to accept.


In the short time I spent in Turkey I experienced a society where men and women worked so hard for little money. Life for many seemed little better than prison.


On one sunny morning I went to a public garden to sit under the sun. There were a lot of young and old people in the garden and I approached one of them and said “Hi” to him, but he refused to respond and then he said, “What do you want, do you know me?”


I returned to my house where I heard the voices of the women in our neighbourhood, which I did not understand, but they were very loud. It was strange for me that their women sit in the street and talk and prepare food and wear bright clothes whilst on their heads they put a coloured cap that does not cover half of their hair, while their daughters wear short skirts and go from morning until evening to work. Their life looked very difficult and complex and I did not understand it well.

On Fridays I saw men streaming to the mosque to hear the Imam’s speech ًwhich is filled with screaming, crying, warnings and intimidations from God. And the people there were all crying and praying. But once they left the mosque they go back to their hard work, and later, tired after long hours of work they drink beer (which is not allowed in Islam ) and eat dough mixed with chili. (I don’t like chili!) There was a simplicity to this life but it was so hard and I felt that I was never accepted as a refugee from Syria. I felt that I had to become like them in order to live with them.

After some days I decided that I couldn’t make a new life in Turkey so I left for Greece, again ‘illegally’. There was no other choice for me. I am no longer afraid of illegal travel. I have been a homeless and guilty refugee as some people in the world seem to see me and as international laws want me, but in fact I am a bird traveling wherever he wants.

Greece


When I arrived in Greece (Samos Island) I could not roam the streets or travel between the islands because I was forced to live in a cage (camp for refugees).


The
Samos camp was full of refugees of different colours, shapes and languages. For the first time I met many different people, who I hadn’t been able to meet before, such as Ethiopians and Afghanis, Pakistanis, Indians, Egyptian Arabs, Algerians and many others. I did not know that all human beings were so alike and that we eat similar food with a slightly different taste and that Afghans and Pakistanis have a lot of cooking skills. And others were into sports and learning languages, and the prettiest of all of this was the chance I had to touch the body of one of the black refugees from Africa without fear, and I knew they were human beings like us. And it was in Greece where I had the opportunity to meet and know people from Europe and the north America.

How beautiful it is to be a free bird.

Despite all these great and new experiences there were many difficulties in getting close to people from so many different societies. There seemed many issues which held us back from accepting one another.


Even gays from Arab and Asian countries
including Greece seemed closed to themselves and do not seem to like any person except gays. But I think that is a reaction because many people don’t accept them. How hard it is to be different and to be a friend to all people, they see you as different and you see them as different and both of you are afraid of the other.

The Greek government allowed me to fly to its capital after much trouble and time and to start another tale.

Athens is not similar to Aleppo or Izmir and was so different from them, with people from many countries and cultures. But this did not change the nature of its people who love to dance and party, drinking beer and raki which is the best alcoholic beverage they have.This may be nice for them, but I was very surprised that most of the workers I saw in Athens were immigrants and refugees from Asia and Africa.

It was not difficult to talk to the young Greek people because they speak English and I have enough to make conversation. But their pronunciation of the English language can seem strange as they speak a new language with a strange voice, but the bigger problem was with the old people who speak only the language of their country.


If I hadn’t met my English friends, life would have been harder for me in Greece. It was also great that my English friends are sociologists which helped them and me better understand the Greek people and others. I began to realise that I too had been influenced by the place where I grew up where the air I breathed was not so open and fresh.


In Greece, which is one of the gateways into Europe, you find a lot of refugees fleeing from their walled countries; many of them also seek to escape from Greece. And the reason is that they are looking for a country that does not have racism, fences and prisons, and is full of safety and love and coexistence. And where you have a chance to make a new life. Greece is a beautiful country but it is so poor that like many refugees I couldn’t see how I could make my new life there.

It seemed to me that most of us still carry in our minds many feelings of distrust and lack of acceptance of those different from ourselves just as we are looking for people different from us and to become like them. I experienced a lot of persecution from refugees which made me think that the freedom we are looking is still infected by the poisonous air from the soceities where we once called home. Even now I am still trying to understand all of this!


Netherlands


My illegal journey finished in Greece. I was so lucky when the Dutch government allowed to me to go to Holland by family re-unification. They recognized me as a free, legal bird . A few weeks after my acceptance I took the travel documents and went to Athens airport to stand there as all other people and could now say I am here ! A legitimate bird so you have to let me get into the plane.

I arrived in the Netherlands with my beautiful loyal dog Max after I got financial help from my British friends to buy travel tickets for me and my dog and some money to buy food, clothes and bags.

The journey was very beautiful, but the fear of another shock was in my mind all the time. I arrived in that beautiful green country, which is trying to escape from the water which is threatening it from all sides. Should it win then will I be safe with Dutch people or should I learn how to swim to start again my journey again but this time as fish not bird ? That was the first question in my mind. Crazy!


In the airport in Amsterdam my friend was waiting me to take me to his house in Enschede where he is living. It was not a house but just one room he shared with another three Syrian refugees.


These were not the easiest days for me in the Netherlands because I was living with my friend and Max my dog in a small room. I couldn’t relax because these Syrian birds didn’t accept me and my dog with them in the same house and because they see me as a ‘fucking feminine’ boy so they want to fuck me or for me to leave the house. They didn’t accept Max either because they said it is not allowed in Islam to have a dog in your house. Although I tried to talk with one of them to explain to him that we are both human and that I am a good person and not as he thinks and his answer was “why you are talking with me ? What do you want ? “


My question is, is he right that I shouldn’t have talked to him and every person must make his life in a small shell ? or is he a psychiatric patient who needs treatment in order to learn to live with others?

Smiles


Before going to my friend’s house I had to spend a few days in a camp sorting out my papers. I arrived at the refugee camp after a journey of more than three and a half hours, but the beauty of the nature and the houses there made me forget everything. I had not seen in my life more beautiful buildings and more beautiful grounds for a refugee camp.Wherever you look, you find trees, flowers and small houses with red rooves, white doors and policemen wandering around the camp on bicycles with a beautiful smile on their faces.


I can not forget those smiles that explained the meaning of life and assured me of my humanity, which I feel has been ‘imprisoned’ since I was a child growing up in Aleppo. And it was not only the smiles on the faces of the police, but wherever you go, you find people smiling at you and greeting you as if they knew you for years or as if you were one of their family.

Even the refugees living here were painting their faces with the same smile. Perhaps the secret is that when you see this smile everywhere and all the time it will draw on your face without thinking. This experience made me so happy because I never imagined that there are people smiling for all people even if they have different colours, religions, shapes, education levels, races and passports.


The story does not end here, but the smiles still accompany me everywhere here in the city where I decided to live in the east of the Netherlands. Every morning and evening I go out with my dog for a walk. I see people around me smile and greet each other and me . That is really the key to life and this is a beautiful society which seems to accept all cultures, and with smiles welcomes all people and all creatures.


Perhaps the Netherlands is not the only country with these wonderful qualities, but this is what I have discovered so far. Life is going on and my wings are stronger and longer now that I have I got legitimate wings. But I will never forget that legal or not we will never stop trying to fly, free like the birds in the sky.

Saad Abdullah

August 2019